Cambodia’s opposition has to stop caving to Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the international community must quit letting the premier play them for fools, or the country will never move forward, longtime observers said at a forum in Washington on Tuesday.
Organized by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, the forum’s three speakers, including veteran U.S. journalist Elizabeth Becker, said the country’s democracy was again facing a serious attack from Mr. Hun Sen.
“It’s quite fair to say that what we’re looking at in Cambodia today is a crisis,” Walter Lohman, director of the foundation’s Asian Studies Center, said at the event titled “Cambodian Democracy and International Accountability.” “It’s a crisis of democratic governance.”
“There’s been a major crackdown,” he continued. “It’s been an intense crackdown on the opposition in Cambodia, no doubt connected to the election cycle…but it does have a familiar ring to it.”
Mr. Lohman said Cambodia appeared to once again be stuck in a political cycle it had followed repetitively over the past 23 years since the U.N. administered elections in 1993 and then left the country for Mr. Hun Sen to eventually reassert his iron grip.
The cycle, he said, was one “where you have a crackdown, you have problems in the lead-up to election cycles, you have problems with the election. You have Hun Sen who does what he needs to do to get us through, and get off the front page of the newspaper.”
“And then the opposition is exiled, and the whole cycle starts all over again,” Mr. Lohman said.
Ms. Becker, who in 1986 wrote “When the War Was Over,” an authoritative historical account of modern Cambodia to that point, said that opposition leader Sam Rainsy had proven himself a let-down.
“I agree that the opposition caved, and I think Sam Rainsy has been a big disappointment on a whole bunch of issues. Why he continues to go back to Paris is beyond me,” Ms. Becker said. Last year, Mr. Rainsy again fled threats of a prison sentence in Cambodia.
“Cambodians keep saying, ‘Why don’t we have someone like Aung San Suu Kyi?’” Ms. Becker said, describing Mr. Rainsy’s flight as a detriment to the opposition. “You will find greater foreign support when you do look things seriously in the eye.”
Mr. Lohman noted that the opposition’s predictable acquiescence to doomed deals with Mr. Hun Sen made it difficult for countries like the U.S.—and the people who have influence within them—to argue for real pressure on the premier.
“Hun Sen has played this game so well over the years—and let’s face it, he does play it very well,” he said.
“It’s his bread and butter: dealing with the international community, giving what he needs to give, and then taking it back when it’s time to take it back.”
“Next time, don’t give in so easily. You’ve got friends here. Let the crisis percolate a little more,” he added, offering advice to Cambodia’s opposition for the future.
“As soon as you throw in the towel, then people like me…are dead. There’s nothing else we can do,” Mr. Lohman said with a sigh.
No matter what Mr. Rainsy does, Ms. Becker added, the international community must stop being an enabler of Mr. Hun Sen—legitimizing his regime at key moments—and instead keep up what she said had been good pressure over the last year of repression.
She pointed to the violent 1998 national election “where an American delegation called it a ‘Miracle on the Mekong,’ when in fact it was a stilted, corrupted election” that had consolidated Mr. Hun Sen’s power.
“So that’s one thing,” she said of the need for a steadfast U.S. position. “That’s sort of the minimum.”
Sam LaHood, the regional deputy director of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and its director in Cambodia from 2012 to 2013, said the U.S. was clearly in a bind—trying to pressure Mr. Hun Sen while wary of pushing him toward China.
On July 15, China’s government pledged half a billion dollars to the Cambodian government through to 2018. Many have accused the Chinese of purchasing Cambodia’s support in its territorial battle against other Southeast Asian nations over the South China Sea.
“You’ve seen this quid pro quo from the Cambodian government in past years, so it’s nothing new, but it’s very bold right now,” Mr. LaHood said of the aid.
“It’s a strong commitment by the Chinese government over the next three years that puts them through this election period,” Mr. LaHood said.
Yet Mr. Lohman said he did not think the U.S. had any business playing such a game, noting that if Mr. Hun Sen wanted to isolate himself internationally and come to rely only on China, he should be allowed to—especially if repression in Cambodia worsens.
“One thing is to call the bluff on China,” he said. “I just don’t buy the whole geopolitical thing. [The U.S. should say:] ‘Go to China, go ahead. We’re going to stick by our principles here and if you think you have a better future with China, go to China.’”
“Hun Sen is only playing us against the Chinese. He gets benefits from us, he gets benefits from the Chinese, and he continues to do what he wants.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he was not surprised to hear people from organizations like IRI attacking the government but did not understand why they did not criticize human rights abuses in other Southeast Asian nations.
“Compare Cambodia with the others. Why don’t they criticize Singapore? Because they have money. Why don’t they criticize Thailand? Because they’re an ally. Why don’t they criticize the Philippines? Because they’re an ally,” Mr. Siphan said.
“This is nothing new. These people are allied with the opposition, and the opposition is against a government that is the product of the people. It’s the will of the people against the will of the foreigners.”
For his part, Mr. Rainsy said in an email from the U.S. that he had no option but to make a deal with Mr. Hun Sen in July 2014—even in the face of widespread warnings of the premier’s tendency to go back on deals—and stressed that this time would be different.
“Who would take the responsibility for any bloodshed associated with continuous mass demonstrations and violent crackdowns? See what happened to the protesting workers at Canadia Industrial Park on the first days of January 2014,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“But the situation and the options in the future will be different from those in the past, because the balance of power will be different with the mounting force of a more and more demanding youth and a more effective mobilization of a better informed population.”